I was eating pig ears within an hour of arriving in Shelby County, Tennessee.
The Memphis I returned to was not the one I'd last seen in 2003. It got a bit hipper. I got a bit older. And maybe a tad more adventuresome with my culinary choices.
More than a decade ago, my first trip to the place "where the blues was born" led me to the joyous cacophony of Beale Street, Elvis's baroque madhouse that is Graceland, and a frightening Day's Inn with a dubious outdoor pool. On my second visit, I returned to Memphis and was drawn back to Beale to find an Elvis impersonator crooning his way through a full blues set. I learned that you do pronounce the "s" in Louis Armstrong and, on that trip, I also discovered the National Civil Rights Museum.
Now, look. I have been to a museum. The Lourve in Paris, the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, the Guggenheim back at home, but my experience at the National Civil Rights Museum has stayed with me in brilliant detail over many years.
Built in the actual Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, visitors literally walk through a piece of preserved American history. You stand where James Earl Ray spied through a window to put King in the crosshairs, and then walk around to the balcony where King was shot. Unfortunately, this powerful and unique experience won't be accessible for long. The public can only visit this spot until current renovations are complete in spring 2014.
The museum has expanded with "Freedom's Sisters," a multimedia exhibit highlighting 20 African American women who were pivotal in cultural change in the 19th and 20th centuries. The usual suspects like Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman are there, but they've highlighted lesser-known figures such as Mary Church Terrell, Septima Poinsette and Charlayn Hutner-Gault. Near the exit, the shrewd curators don't miss the opportunity to connect the past to present injustices with information on current-day examples of civil and human rights violations.
Not surprisingly, then, my recollection of Memphis was one of town heavy with Southern air and the relics of racial strife. Of course the blues was born here. This ain't the place for peppy pop songs. But on my third go-round, the city felt crisp, fresh, up-to-date. I caught first glimpse on a suburban street in East Memphis.
I beelined from the airport to Hog & Hominy, an American South-cum-Italian restaurant, opened in 2011 by Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman. These two Italian-American buddies made a pact as kids to grow up to be chefs. And glory, glory hallelujah they did. Hog & Hominy is part of the city's culinary evolution, a push beyond BBQ ribs and collards, but one that's also careful not to scrape too much of that beloved tradition into the trash.
When in Rome and all, so it seemed fine to take a cue from Elvis's later years and stuff my face silly.
I ordered the Baia Pizza, with the key ingredient of olio santo (andouille sausage oil); Spaghetti Squash, a halved squash with tomato sauce and cheese baked into the center and soft sides to tear down with your fork, creating spaghetti-like pulp. The Buffalo Pork Tails came doused with pecorino vinaigrette and the aforementioned pig ears, which were less frightful than they sound to most yankees. (They were just salty bits of porcine crunch.) Why go to the South without also ordering Fried Green Tomatoes, here again with pig ears, but the added flavor fusion of buttermilk, kimchee and cantaloupe.
Delirium-inducing barbeque, pivotal African American history, and the massive Mississippi River are all part of the Memphis ethos, but what makes this city world-renowned is its music. Elvis made it his home. BB King rose to fame here. It's the birthplace of W.C. Handy "the father of the blues;" John Lee Hooker, famous blues musician and son of a sharecropper; "Back Door Man" composer Howlin' Wolf; and a heap of others.
Live music is pretty much everywhere, but there are also historic musical spots like the Sun Studio. There, Johnny Cash legendarily showed up uninvited and declared, "I'm John Cash and I want you to hear me play." Elvis recorded there, as did heavy hitters like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. Although it's a U.S. National Historic Landmark and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, the studio still operates with contemporary artists including Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Ryan Bingham and The Walkmen holding recording sessions on this musically-hallowed ground.
Sun Studios is known as the place where rock-and-roll was born, but Stax Studios was where soul music came alive. The Stax Museum show visitors its own history including some impressive "artifacts" not the least of which is a reconstructed Mississippi Delta church from the early 20th Century. The Hoopers A.M.E. Chapel lives on in the museum because of the irrefutable connection between the powerful gospel music of the African American church and the soul music popularized in the 1960s and 70s and produced by Stax.
Memphis is one of America's most historic and fascinating cities: rife with history, rich with flavor, and unafraid of passion in all of its many forms. I look forward to my next journey south where I can settle in and say, as the blues musician Wesley Wilson wrote, "Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer."